Reflections on Randi

Yesterday evening I chanced upon a blog post by James Randi. I guess quite a few of my readers won’t have heard of him, but he’s a really interesting character. His real name is Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and he was born in Toronto. He is a professional magician (i.e. a conjuror) who is now 81 years old, and who has spent most of the last three decades debunking psychics and exposing fraudulent claims of the paranormal. Those of you out there who remember the 1970s will remember the  “paranormalist”  Uri Geller being a household name for his numerous TV appearances bending spoons, stopping clocks and generally exhibiting supernatural powers. Randi exposed these as simple conjuring tricks, and got himself sued for his trouble.

Here’s a fairly lengthy clip in which James Randi talks about the Geller case and other examples of quackery:

There’s an interesting connection between the Uri Geller phenomenon and physics. In the 1970s, when Geller was at the height of his popularity, a physicist called John G. Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people. This is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering what it was about James Randi’s blog post yesterday that caught my eye. Well, at the age of 81, James Randi has finally revealed to the public that he is gay. I feel a bit sad that it’s taken him so long to step out of the closet, but it is a very personal decision and no rebuke is intended. He’s lived long enough to remember times when being open was a much tougher option than it is now. Judging by the messages of support on his blog, I’m sure it’s a decision he won’t regret.

Good for you, James Randi!

PS. I noticed that the badastronomy blog has also covered this story, and generated over 100 comments in the process!

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12 Responses to “Reflections on Randi”

  1. Will Grainger Says:

    Where does the age of 70 come from? Wikipedia has his age as 81, and a “possibly related post” below yours says “Happy 81st, James Randi!”

  2. telescoper Says:

    Quite right. I was sloppy…I looked at the first line of his blog post and it said “seventy years of personal experience” rather than looking up his actual age. I’ve fixed it now.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Randi was a hero of mine in my days with the Skeptics in the 1980s, and while I now think that miracles *can* happen I believe that they happen a lot less often than many people think, and I still believe the Skeptics do fine work in promoting and defending mainstream science. Even in my secular days I thought that the philosophical side of Skepticism was largely hot air and that hard-nosed investigations, of the sort Randi did, were the thing. Again and again he made the point that scientists were qualified to detect subtlety in nature, but not fraud, and that he as a stage magician was a specialist in that. And over and over again he was proved right while they wasted large amounts of time and ended up with red faces. On the one occasion I sat next to him at a Skeptics dinner he didn’t come across as the warmest of men, but certainly a trustworthy one. He also did the church a favour in exposing Popoff.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    I didn’t realise you had met him although I might have guessed, knowing your Skeptics connection…

    I haven’t seen him do his conjuring act though. I very much enjoy watching clever illusionists, especially those involving small-scale sleight of hand and adroit use of misdirection. It’s an immensely difficult thing to do well, and the best of them are geniuses.

    Peter

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    A fine profession made much tougher by the modern use of video replay facilities…

    Anton

  6. Rhodri Evans Says:

    I´ve met him too. He was the guest speaker at the dinner of the AAS in 1993 held at Berkely. He was a fantastic after-dinner speaker. Yes, a pity he has taken so long to come out as gay, but when was homosexuality legalised in the US? Hasn´t it only been legal in the Disunited Kingdom since the 60s?

  7. telescoper Says:

    Rhodri,

    As far as I know it wasn’t until 2003 that the Supreme Court ruled that discriminatory laws relating to “sodomy” between consenting adults were unconstitutional and thus effectively legalised homosexual behaviour across the USA.

    There never was a federal law about it, however, and many states had repealed such laws before the 2003 judgment.

    States differ markedly in attitudes from one to another in wider aspects such as gay marriage, adoption rights, etc.

    James Randi is Canadian, in fact, although I don’t . Canada legalised homosexual acts in 1969, and fully recognized same-sex marriage in 2005.

    Peter

  8. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Again I am guilty of having too little time on the computer (paying by the minute for an internet connection) to properly think about what I am typing. But I have just paid for another 12 minutes so will try to think a bit more carefully now…

    Yes, I am well aware, having lived in the States for 9 years, that each state can make its own laws on just about every aspect of life in the United States. But once the Supreme court decides something is unconstitutional a Federal law can be enacted, so if it is the case that the Supreme Court decided as recently as 2003 that discriminating against homosexuals was unconstitutional then it is probably the case that until that date there were states where it was illegal. Utah and Colorado would spring to mind as too obviously very socially conservative states where I can well imagine homosexuals are still persecuted. Wyoming would be another one. You probably remember the case in Laramie in the late 1990s when a homosexual was brutally murdered in Laramie by two rednecks for his sexual orientation. I doubt much has changed there since, having been to Laramie on more occasions that I care to count.

    If Canda only legalised homosexual acts in 1969 then it is hardly surprising that Randi took so long to come out. He had lived most of his life (or certainly a large fraction of it) at a time when his sexual orientation was illegal, not just frowned upon but illegal. Imagine how difficult it must be to come out in such an environment.

    I have a student who is from the middle east in a country where homosexuality is illegal. I stronly suspect he is gay, but if he is I would be amazed if he were to come out.

    The story line in Eastenders with the relationship between Christian and what´s his name (my mind has gone black) who is from a muslim family is very interesting. Will whats-his-name come out as gay (or bisexual as he has just got married) knowing that his family will disown him and he will be cast out of the Muslim religion? The story has been going on for some 6 months in Eastenders and is still not resolved.

    As you say Peter, states differ markedly in the attitude towards gay marriages. I wonder if Wisconsin, where I lived for 6 years, has legalised gay marriage. It struck me as a reasonably enlightened state when I lived there.

  9. telescoper Says:

    I don’t actually watch Eastenders any more, but the storyline you mention sounds quite similar to something I went through when I lived in the East End…

  10. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Said, that´s the name of the other character, the one who is from a strict Muslim family. It´s a good storyline, but they are really stringing it out. So far there are only a few people (including Said´s mother and Christian´s sister and Christian´s sister´s step-daughter) who know that Said and Christian were sleeping together before Said got married. Now Said is trying to deny that there was anything to it and giving Christian the cold shoulder…..

    I bet you never thought Easternders would be discussed on your blog Peter! :-)

  11. Mr. James Randi’s world is a little dark, if some mystrerious truth can’t be investigted just because his action of uncover pseudoscience.
    Telepath phenomena happens around me and could be proved repeatedly.
    radwind.wordpress.com

  12. For a long time, Randi has been offering a million dollars for the demonstration of paranormal claims. If you don’t collect money, no serious person will believe your claims.

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